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Andy Cohen’s ‘Watch What Happens Live’ Builds a Cooler Clubhouse for 2017

Variety logo Variety 12/20/2016 Cynthia Littleton
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Jennifer Lawrence took a long look around the tiny “Watch What Happens Live” studio space and smiled. “I feel comfortable drinking and telling you inappropriate things here,” she confessed to host Andy Cohen.

Lawrence’s most recent visit to Cohen’s latenight talker was the last episode produced in the show’s original “Bravo Clubhouse” set. (The episode taped Dec. 6 but aired Dec. 19.) When “WWHL” returns with fresh installments on Jan. 3, the show will beam out from a considerably larger studio space, located one floor above its current home in a nondescript building on Hudson Street in New York City’s West Village. It will also have a slightly longer title (“Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen”), enshrining Cohen as the ringmaster of what has become a uniquely dishy, kitschy and often risque part of TV’s late-night conversation.

“Because we’re live, our viewers can respond to us in real time. The other night, my mother texted me during the show to say, ‘This show is too dirty and it’s too boring,” Cohen says. “I read that on air. I thought it was hilarious.”

After the Dec. 6 taping — a rare instance when “WWHL” was not actually live, in a nod to Lawrence’s busy schedule — Lawrence urged Cohen to retain the wood-paneling and all the pop culture accoutrement strewn throughout the set, and of course, the famously well-stocked bar cart that is a big facilitator of the fun on “WWHL.”

The fact that one of the biggest movie stars in the world made a stop in the “WWHL” shoebox — the audience section seats all of 22 — is testament to Cohen’s charm, as well as Lawrence’s love of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise and its “Vanderpump Rules” spinoff.

The move to the larger set will be a boon for “WWHL” as it will give the guests a little more room to stretch out and offer a musical performance space for the first time. But Lawrence needn’t worry: The signature clubhouse feel will most certainly be retained.

“We invented this thing called the ‘Bravo Clubhouse’ and people think of it as a place they want to come and hang out with Bravo-lebrities,” says “WWHL” exec producer Deirdre Connolly. Connolly has been at Cohen’s side — and in his ear — as the exec producer of “WWHL” for Michael Davies’ Embassy Row since the program began as a series of “Real Housewives” after-show specials in July 2009.

The studio space was originally designed for a handful of specials, and producers gradually found creative ways to retro-fit the facility to serve the show’s needs. At the outset, the control room didn’t even have room for a seat for Connolly (that was eventually fixed). For years she’s had to give up her office to serve as a green room when guests arrived for the 11 p.m. airing. That won’t be the case with the move to the new digs.

“We shoe-horned our way into this space,” Connolly says. “From a production standpoint, it will be exciting to have a space that works for what we do.” The new audience section will seat about 50 people. The seating area is endowed with four chairs that hail from the Chicago studio where Oprah Winfrey hosted her syndicated talk show for 25 years. (“WWHL” snatched them up on eBay when Winfrey auctioned them off for charity earlier this year.)

An upgrade to the technical facilities will allow them to have much more fun with on-screen graphics and interactive bells and whistles. “We’re now seven years in. When you do a show like this you’re always thinking, ‘Now what?’ Now we have this big exciting thing to look forward to,” Connolly says.

After its initial success, “WWHL” became a twice-weekly show that was picked up in three-month increments; a year in, they finally got a full-year pickup. Connolly, an alum of MTV’s “Total Request Live,” believed early on that the show had the potential to take root as a nightly franchise thanks to Cohen’s skill at thinking on his feet. When boldface names like Sarah Jessica Parker and Meryl Streep started making the tight squeeze down the “WWHL” hallway, Connolly and Cohen knew they were on their way. The half-hour show expanded to its current Sunday-Monday 11 p.m. format in 2012.

Cohen credits the show’s without-a-net live format for helping it stand out with viewers and with stars. They don’t do much advance prep work with guests, by design. Those in the chair opposite Cohen know they have to come ready to play. (And that includes an additional few minutes of banter for the digital “WWHL” after-show. Lawrence confirmed in her Dec. 19 segment that she, Amy Schumer and Schumer’s sister Kim have completed the script for a femme road-trip movie that they intend to make together once their schedules can be sorted out.)

Guests often arrive “after a long day of doing press. They’re happy to come here and relax and have a cocktail and just talk,” Connolly says.

Cohen cites Howard Stern as his broadcasting role model when it comes to interviewing celebrities. “A lot of the great surprises we’ve had over the years have only happened because we’re live,” he says. “We don’t do pre-interviews — which means that I can go anywhere.”

Starting Jan. 3, Cohen will have even more room to go there.

(Pictured: Andy Cohen and Deirdre Connolly)

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